Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paris meets Bear Country

"Mutti, meet Big Foot. Big Foot, meet Mutti!"

It has been over two weeks since my fingers have hit the keyboard. I have missed you, Le Blog

Things are slowing down a bit, and I finally get to write a new story. Mutti ("Mom," in German) a.k.a. Le Husband's mom, a.k.a. Junior's grandma, has come -and gone- after nine very busy days. We did our best to show her around (this was only her third visit to Seattle,) and to introduce her to favorite places, and favorite friends. Voilà a Best-Of of our Holidays "à la Pacific Northwest." 

Like many modern stories, Mutti's American adventure started in an airport. Seatac airport, as we call the local hub. Mutti was flying with Air France (the French airline offers the only non-stop flight available between Seattle in Paris.) Even though she had traveled over-an-ocean-across-a-continent-in-coach-class-for-most-of-a-day, you would not have known it. She looked fraîche comme une rose, (fresh as a daisy) when she finally appeared on top of the escalator in the main terminal. That's a real Parisienne, for you, folks. 

Waiting, waiting...

Notice the newly-purchased coat: Mutti is ready for Northwest weather!

We were not the only ones waiting. As I was observing the crowd, I noticed another family standing across from us by the escalators. I could not help but wonder: Who was Amanda? I surmised she was an American exchange student coming home from France during Christmas break. 

By the time Mutti went to bed that first evening, she had been up for over 27 hours. Ah, the joys of international travel!

The first morning, we did not waste any time. There were only a few days left before Christmas. Gifts had to be selected, purchased, and wrapped (just in case Santa was too busy to take care of the French imports and their visitor.) Time was of the essence, and we all took off to go downtown. What do you do in America when you want to shop in an efficient manner? You hit the mall, of course. Downtown Seattle has a decent one: Pacific Place. There are a few good boutiques around the corner, including the Nordstrom flagship store. The next few hours were very busy. Some of us spent a lot of time doing this...

You've got to love smartphones!

Others were more productive and got the job done...

Mutti found a jolie jacket here. 
It will look great on the Champs-Elysées!

"Real" Chanel...
Pricey "fake" Chanel, by St John

More Chanel... Do you notice a theme, here?

Les boys were not forgotten. On the way home, we stopped at West Marine (the boater's Nordstrom,) so Le Husband a.k.a. "Skipper Fred" could find a proper gift. 

"Maman, could I get a new dinghy, please? (kidding!)"
I still don't understand why Le Husband turned these down...

Très chichi, non?
"Green" bags made out of recycled sails: Perfect! 

When we were not shopping last week, we were sightseeing. One day, Le Husband took Mutti, Junior and a buddy to the famed Seattle Museum of Flight. It is a local "must-see."

Two friends inside the International Space Station

"Bonjour,  Monsieur!" 

About to board the Flight Simulator

Another day, Mutti and I met a dear friend (and former French student of mine) Kaydee, and the three of us enjoyed a lovely lunch and afternoon in a quaint Seattle neighborhood I blogged about this fall, Madison Valley

A local bistro, Voilà

Conversation flowed... in French, bien sûr...

Avoiding Christmas crowds in the charming Madison Valley boutiques
We got treated to my friend Nora's delicious macarons chez Inès Pâtisserie

Not all our trips were taken in an urban environment. Mutti had not seen the mountains in the winter for over 30 years, so Le Husband, a caring son, decided to drive to Leavenworth. For those of you who have never visited the Pacific Northwest, Leavenworth is a major tourist attraction located in the heart of the Cascade mountain range. A former timber community that once thrived thanks to the Great North Railroad, the small town floundered once the railroad was relocated to another city in the 1920s. In the 1960s, several officials decided to capitalize on the town's location (it is surrounded by majestic peaks,) and Leavenworth was remodeled into a Bavarian-style village. It was a daring move, but it paid off. Today, Leavenworth attracts over a million visitors a year. The scenic town offers the best of both worlds: a lively downtown with quaint boutiques and restaurants (looking its best in the winter when it is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and Christmas lights sparkle on all buildings,) and outdoor activities galore. 

The drive to Leavenworth, through Stevens Pass
A Bavarian village... surrounded by the local "Alps"

A taste of the Old World

In Leavenworth, Mutti enjoyed a delicious German lunch (complete with Bratwurst and sauerkraut.) We visited local boutiques specializing in nutcrackers, coocoo clocks and other Bavarian-themed paraphernalia, and braved the bitter cold during a walk in the scenic riverfront park.

Happy dog and boy in Leavenworth, WA

Bon appétit, Bald Eagle!

After exploring the area so much, it felt good to relax with some of our hospitable friends, who had us over for dinner, or for coffee and beignets. Then we welcomed a few families on Christmas Eve. This trip was Mutti's introduction to American style entertaining. She learned some useful survival skills... 

How to eat a hamburger... Forks and knives not allowed!

How to sample Tequila...

Let's not forget lime juice and salt!

We noticed everyone was on their best behavior around the French lady, well almost...

On Christmas morning, Les Boys, Mutti and I opened our gifts. Junior was very happy about  his new RC plane, a gift from his grandma. 

We treated Mutti to a special celebration on Christmas day: brunch at the [revolving] Space Needle restaurant. The weather, however windy, cooperated, and we admired endless views of the Puget sound area during the meal. 

Junior and "the Orbiter," the Needle's signature dessert
Don't fly off,  Junior!

A few days later, Mutti went home to her hometown, Paris, France, after a successful visit to Bear Country

Les Boys and I stayed home and relaxed a bit, enjoying the last few days of Christmas break. We ignored the pelting rain and checked on our boat, Mistral, at the marina. Then  we  paid a visit to some boat-dealer friends and looked at their sailboat inventory (a favorite family pastime-- Le Husband has not given up on his dream to own a French sailboat one day!) 

This is what our family does,
when most people stay stay dry inside coffee shops!

We started a Harry Potter marathon and watched a different movie every night (is there a better way to spend a cold, rainy winter evening?)

Wizards, witches and pixies are always welcome chez French Girl!
(Kris Kringl Christmas shop, Leavenworth, WA) 

We read; we talked; I wrote. Tonight, we will meet more friends to celebrate the new year. 

This is it. The last story I will write in 2011. Thank you for following this fun little blog this year. I can't wait to see you again in 2012!

Bonne année! Happy New Year!

-- French Girl, les Boys (and Mutti) 

A bientôt.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

L'Abbé Pierre: The reluctant French icon

Heureuses Fêtes / Happy Holidays to all my friends, old and new, near and far. 
May you enjoy a peaceful Holiday season with your loved ones.
Voilà a special story for you. I hope you like it.
I will return in a few days...
A bientôt!
-- Véronique "French Girl in Seattle"

'Tis the season of giving...
(photo from

Last week, when friends old and new came to celebrate Le Blog's first birthday, many kindly mentioned they have been enjoying my series on French icons. It seems le béret, la baguette, la marinière, les cafés parisiens, la Seine, la Tour Eiffel and even the venerable Deux-Chevaux (2CV) have struck a cord with my readers. The story on la Maison Hermès and the Birkin [bag] drew enthusiastic comments. I felt quite proud of myself. After all, gift-giving is on everyone's mind during the Holiday season, and what could be more enjoyable than shopping chez Hermès

Buried knee-deep in wrapping paper; shoved over by frustrated crowds at the local mall; defeated by piles of greeting cards that had to be sent yesterday; many might forget that the Holiday season is not just about shopping, wrapping or ticking things off an endless to-do list. For when they say "''Tis the season of giving," surely, they mean more than: "You-have-to-snatch-the-iPhone4s-and-don't-miss-Macy's-umpteenth-One-Day-Sale." Not to  worry: Americans are a generous bunch, and this year, many will take time out of their frenzied schedule to help out at a local charity; volunteering at their kids' schools; making donations to causes dear to their heart. They will also remember to be grateful for their relatives and friends and will celebrate the Holidays in style, as they should. 

Today, I would like to tell you the story of a man who embodied Giving. France knows him as "l'Abbé Pierre." His face (the grey hair and beard, the big glasses, the béret,) and silhouette (the long, black cape, the heavy shoes, the cane,) are so familiar to my countrymen that a picture of l'Abbé Pierre hardly needs a caption. During his long life, he remained one of France's most unlikely, and yet most beloved public figures, topping popularity polls year after year, until his death, in January 2007.

La Fresque des Lyonnais (the famous Lyonnais fresco)
 Lyon,  France

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was born Henri Marie Joseph Grouès, in Lyon, to a well-heeled bourgeois family of eight children. His father had a strong social conscience and introduced Henri to charity work at a very young age. A devout catholic, Henri was determined to become a missionary. He attended a Jesuit school, and later renounced his inheritance to join a Franciscan monastery. He was ordained priest in 1938. Strict monastic life did not agree with him (he was plagued with health issues,) and he eventually left the monastery.

World War II broke out in 1939. He was mobilised as an NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) but contracted pleurisy while training in Alsace. When France fell, he became vicar of the Grenoble cathedral. Throughout the war, he would take enormous risks to help others; enabling Jews and other politically persecuted to escape to Switzerland; joining the French Résistance where he operated under several code names including the now-famous "Abbé Pierre;" founding a clandestine newspaper; stealing clothing from warehouses for the poor and the Résistance. He was arrested in 1944 but managed to escape and joined General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces in Algiers. He continued fighting and received top French military honors at the end of the war.

A young Abbé Pierre listens to a speech by General de Gaulle in 1946

The war experience would mark him for life: From then on, he engaged himself to protect fundamental human rights and to fight for the causes he believed in. If legal means were not an option, then civil disobedience was all right too. 

He also knew how to use his reputation and growing fame, and his connections to politicians to further his cause, lecturing formidable French leader General de Gaulle, in January 1945 on the need for milk to feed babies!

Impatient, stubborn, unruly and outspoken, l'Abbé Pierre was soon to become a major influence in French society, an indefatigable fighter who led a life-long crusade against poverty and homelessness. His tactical weapons: Prayer, provocation, charity work and political action. 

After the war, L'Abbé Pierre was convinced to join the French Parliament where he worked as a député (representative,) from 1945 to 1951, but he quickly understood that he would be most efficient fighting misery in the street.

In 1949, using his lawmaker's indemnities after he had left the Parliament, he started a community outside of Paris to help the neediest members of society. He named the center "Emmaus," a town mentioned in the Gospel. His early "companions" were a motley crew of down-on-their-luck individuals. With them, he came up with the idea of a working community; organizing rag-picking and recycling of household goods to finance the construction of shelters for the homeless, often without construction permits. This was a far cry from traditional charity, as it encouraged the poor to fend for themselves. To those who had nothing, he brought not merely relief, but also purpose and hope. When money ran out, l'Abbé Pierre did not hesitate to take part in a TV game show to raise funds. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin started supporting the movement as Emmaus grew steadily, first in France (where it is today one the largest NGOs,) then internationally after 1971 with the creation of Emmaus International.

People are needed to take up the challenge, strong people, who proclaim the truth, throw it in people's faces, and do what they can with their own two hands.
L'Abbé Pierre.

1954: Laying the first stone of a new Emmaus-sponsored shelter
L'Abbé Pierre and the first Emmaus companions

But it is during the exceptionally cold winter of 1954 that L'Abbé Pierre became a living legend. An indignant Abbé issued a radio appeal on behalf of 5 million homeless people after a baby froze to death, and after a woman died on a Paris boulevard clutching her eviction notice in her frozen hand. In his famous speech, he challenged the French to heed their moral duty. The opening words caught everyone's attention: "My friends, come help... A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00am..." The French - no doubt remembering the privations endured during the war - listened, and donations poured in: Money, blankets, clothing, even jewelry and fur coats! My mother-in-law, who was a young girl at the time, remembers listening to the radio address with her family and walking down to the nearest temporary shelter with clothing and blankets. 

Throughout his life, l'Abbé Pierre used the power of the media
 to further his cause

The following morning, the press wrote of an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la bonté.) Over the next few weeks, donations were sorted out and distributed all over France, often through the emerging network of Emmaus communities where the homeless were given food and shelter. Emmaus volunteers were former homeless people who had learned to depend for survival on their own efforts, reselling refurbished furniture, books and scraps. L'Abbé Pierre was everywhere, delivering rousing speeches; visiting politicians to push for new legislation to forbid landlords from evicting tenants during winter months; holding the hands of women and children while visiting shelters. As a result of his tireless campaigning, the French government finally undertook a large program of housing reconstruction. 

Leaving the Elysée Palace after meeting with the French President (1954)

Years went by. L'Abbé Pierre did not slow down, always prompt to denounce injustice, not only in France but in the rest of the world where he was often seen with international leaders. Even when he turned down the Legion of Honor and other prestigious awards to protest the lack of official efforts towards the poor, he also understood the need to rub shoulders with politicians to get results. 

Always frank and often controversial, he wrote books about various topics, publicly disagreeing with Pope John Paul II on the issues of priest celibacy, the union of gay couples, the use of contraception, or the ordination of women as priests. 

There was controversy. There was media lynching when l'Abbé made unpopular choices, but the French public [a notoriously tough crowd] remained faithful to him. Then came old age, and failing health, and l'Abbé progressively retired out of the public eye. But there was always one more injustice, one more cause worth fighting for. So he would call the media; meet with officials; show up at the French Parliament, where the frail man would speak up from his wheelchair, his voice weak, but his commitment undiminished. At the end of his life, he accepted a few honors -reluctantly- and respectful crowds came to see him.

Finally accepting the prestigious Legion of Honor
awarded by President Chirac in 2001
L'Abbé Pierre meets l'Abbé Pierre in 2005

It was finally time for the man President Chirac called: "A great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness," to take his final bow. He died after a long illness, at the age of 94. Statesmen, celebrities, companions of Emmaus and the French public attended his funeral celebrated at Notre-Dame cathedral, on January 26, 2007. L'Abbé's companions were placed at the front of the congregation, according to his last wishes. His iconic béret, cape and cane lay on top of the coffin during the funeral service.

A big funeral for a man who aspired to a simple, monastic life

Henri Grouès - l'Abbé Pierre - rests in a small cemetery in Esteville, a small village North of Rouen, in Normandy. At peace at last, (one would hope,) he is in good company, surrounded by several of his early companions and friends. At his request, his grave is anonymous, but it is easy to find, thanks to all the flowers left by visitors. 

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007): French patriot, human being. Led a life of action and service and knew a thing or two about giving.  

Adieu, l'Abbé. On t'aimait bien.
So long, l'Abbé. We liked you.
A bientôt.


To learn more about l'Abbé Pierre's inspiring life, watch this excellent documentary (2 video clips, about 18 minutes.) It is utterly frustrating, however, as the second part stops around 1949 when Emmaus, the organization founded by l'Abbe Pierre, was taking off. Still, a great look at his early years and his rise to fame.

You may also rent the 1989 movie "Hiver 1954: L'Abbé Pierre" ["Winter 1954: L'Abbe Pierre"] with Lambert Wilson. 
Finally, a full English translation of the 1954 speech can be found here  +=+=+ On another note, the names of our first Christmas Giveaway winners were published on Monday. Look them up here. +=+=+